The line between work and play can often be extremely thin. If you love your job, it can feel less like work and more like paid pleasure. Conversely, if your hobby becomes burdened with too much pressure and obligation, it can start to emulate work, albeit without a pay cheque to justify the effort. Finding the right balance is tough, which is why so few of us are fortunate enough to make careers out of our passions. Luckily, there’s an entire genre of video games dedicated to those of us who enjoy treading the work/play tightrope. Games like Euro Truck Simulator, Farming Simulator, and Kerbal Space Program require a more studious approach than most games, and for some people their systematised take on real-life activities is quite entertaining; for others, they are the antithesis of the escapism they go to games for.

I typically consider myself part of the latter group. Realism in games can be impressive and immersive, but I find too often it comes at the cost of fun. Given that, I should have had zero interest in TIS-100, perhaps the most unabashed marriage of work and play that I have ever encountered. TIS-100, the Tessellated Intelligence System, is a puzzle game of sorts from Zachtronics, the developer of popular brain-benders SpaceChem and Infinifactory. ‘Of sorts’ might be understating it; in reality, TIS-100 is essentially a programming sandbox built along the lines of the assembly languages from the early days of computing. Forget BASIC or DOS; assembly is nuts-and-bolts programming right down at the hardware level.

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Now, if you’re currently scratching your head over all that technobabble, TIS-100 is probably not the game for you. In fact, calling it a game is probably something of a misnomer. There are very few game-like elements in it: aside from brief snippets of a conspiracy story and global rankings for your performance on each problem, it might as well be a university assignment from Computer Science 101. That’s no exaggeration; the programming challenges get mighty tough, and without a solid understanding of computer logic, even nominal completion would be a staggering feat. For a bit of perspective, the game comes with a pseudo-photocopied technical manual that explains how the TIS functions - it’s all the tutorial the game provides, and trust me when I say you’ll need it.

And yet, despite my general ambivalence towards simulation-style games, I’ve been having a great time bashing out code and banging my head against the shortcomings of the TIS-100’s API. It’s crazy given I program for a living; after a day spent building web apps and tinkering with databases, I should want to do anything but more programming. I’m doing essentially the same thing in both instances - in one case for money, the other for fun. On paper it seems ridiculous, but in practice it couldn’t be more satisfying.

Blocky white text on a black background always gives me a surge of excitement. It’s kind of worrying...

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Despite my enjoyment, though, I couldn’t honestly recommend this game to anyone who isn’t already invested in the world of programming. That’s not to say you have to be a regular code-monkey to enjoy it; you might just have to spend a good few hours or more flipping bits in the goalless sandbox mode before everything clicks and you can start the game proper. On the plus side, if you do push through the steep learning curve, you’ll walk away with quite a respectable understanding of the basics of programming. For me, not only am I overcoming the game’s challenges, I am actively exercising my logical thinking - a key skill for any professional programmer. No other game has made me feel so accomplished in my success.

TIS-100 is a niche within a niche within a niche. Not just a video game, not just a simulation video game, but a simulation video game focused on a subject so esoteric that the average person still believes Hollywood’s vision of keyboard-clacking, techno-babbling dungeon-dwellers reflects reality. Frankly, I’m surprised - pleasantly so - that the game has done as well as it has. It’s moved around 46,000 units on Steam, trumping titles like Roundabout (16,000 units), Pix the Cat (28,000 units), and Oceanhorn (28,000 units), all indie games with far greater accessibility. Perhaps it’s a testament to the lack of good programming games, or maybe the popularity of Zachtronics’ previous titles. Either way, it makes me happy to know I’m not the only one who gets excited at the thought of swapping registers and messing with LIFO stacks.

On that note, are there any games you enjoy that are similarly narrow in their appeal? If so, let me know in the comments below!